IN Interviews : Tusk PDX
We don't usually discuss food very often on Infashuated, but when granted the chance to pick the brains behind Tusk PDX, Sam Smith and Josh McFadden, we couldn't pass up the opportunity to speak at length about their masterpiece (thanks for the introduction, Heather and Jonathan)!
For those not in Portland during the summer months, it seemed as if the entire city awaited Tusk's grand opening in August with bated breath—and in the end, the restaurant certainly lived up to the buzz. Serving up beautiful Middle Eastern dishes with a Pacific Northwest flare, Tusk keeps ravenous patrons coming back for more week after week.
Could you tell us a bit about your past life prior to Tusk?
S: I grew up in the East Bay area in a town called, Moraga. At 18, I moved to the east coast to attend college at Villanova University. After graduating in 2004, I stayed in Philadelphia, eventually working with Michael Solomonov and opening Zahav. In 2009, I moved back to the Bay Area and worked at Oliveto Restaurant & Cafe in Oakland. I moved to Portland in 2010.
J: Working, traveling, eating, farming, reading, and dreaming.
How did you two meet and what are your roles and responsibilities at Tusk?
S: Josh and I met in the kitchen at Spirit of 77, a sports bar near the [Oregon] Convention Center and Moda Center (where the Blazers play). I had moved up to Portland to run the kitchen there and needed help. Joshua and I had mutual friends. He had just moved to town and was looking for part-time work while he worked on his own project. We immediately hit it off, cooking elevated junk food together: burgers, fried fish sandwiches, chicken finger hoagies, hot wings. It was so much fun. We knew we would work together again. My role at Tusk is Executive Chef and owner. My main responsibility is to manage the kitchen and write the menu.
J: Ha, we meet at Spirit of 77, Sam taught me how to make burgers and more, he was my boss. I am one of the owners of Tusk, I helped put it into the world from team building and visual direction. Sam was ready to move on from Ava Gene’s, so we created a new band. Now I just fix stuff and help it on course. It is Sam’s show.
You both have worked on the east coast extensively (New York and Philly), and now Portland. Could you describe the difference in pace between the two regions as restaurateurs?
S: Cooks in Portland demand more, in terms of encouragement, money, attention, vacation, etc. This definitely makes it more difficult on our end, but I think it is a movement in a positive direction. I want cooking to be something that can be seen as a career, something that can sustain a healthy lifestyle. I saw a lot of cooks get burnt out on the east coast.
J: They are older bigger and they smell funny. I love them deeply, but my heart is in Portland and the PNW. I suppose the same for the restaurateurs?
There has to be a pretty strong symbiotic relationship when partnering with another chef to run a restaurant successfully. What are some of the magical things you two have in common? And what are a few of your favorite perks that come with working together?
S: Josh and I have a great relationship. We talk openly about food and critique, we really just end up making each other better. Most of our best ideas have come from hanging out on Josh's porch drinking rosé and smoking joints. We both love food that embraces a nostalgic idea of junk food, but made using our approach that focuses on seasonality and high-quality ingredients.
J: We both really really like cheeseburgers, so we get to eat them together often; is there anything more special [than] that?
It goes without saying that quality agriculture and farming are important factors for Tusk. Have you had any environmental concerns when sourcing the best produce? Do you have any preferences for farming practices employed by the farmers you work with?
S: All the farmers that we work with are either certified organic or follow organic practices. Methods and approach change from farmer to farmer. Some employ greenhouses, some use hydroponic methods, and some feel that if a plant needs a greenhouse to grow, it should not grow in this climate. I like to work with farmers with different approaches. The most important things for me are local and organic, after that there are differing opinions. Water is always an issue, and that will depend on where a farm is located, if they have water rights, how hot it gets, etc. We work with one farm, Black Locust, who goes so far as to add fungi back to the soil, does a constant crop rotation, and everything he can to give back to the land he is growing on.
J: Seasonal eating is the most important thing right now. The more people make choices in-season, [and] in the place it grows and is raised, the better it tastes and the better it is for the planet/community. We work with farmers often to help with spring and summer plantings, seed selection, down to the best of the best.
"Josh and I have a great relationship. We talk openly about food and critique—we really just end up making each other better."
We love the intricate support system of small business owners in Portland and first learned about Tusk from our talented friends at OLO, Heather and Jonathan. Can you tell us about how you’ve collaborated with the perfumers, and whether you’ve collaborated with any other makers in Portland?
S: We are collaborating with Poler for hats, shirts, and other goods. We are also working with Steven Smith Tea to have a custom tea on nitro draft. We'll see what happens in the future, but I would love to collaborate with a distillery on making a Portland version of the Middle Eastern drink, Arak.
J: I just gave them a basic idea, I think it is always best to let the people do what they do. I had very specific ideas and direction, but they shaped it and made all our hands smell so so good.
The restaurant’s decor is absolutely beautiful. Can you share the process and any inspiration behind creating and building out the space?
S: Joshua can take the lead on this one, but I my two cents is that we wanted to have a space that didn't feel like anywhere else in Portland. We want it to be escape from what it feels like to live here on a daily basis. Not to say I don't love the aesthetic and feeling of Portland, because I definitely do. We just wanted to do something different. Especially in a place that rains 9 months a year, we wanted to have a space that feels light and inviting. I don't feel like there is enough of this, and hopefully design here will start moving more in that direction.
J: The first thing picked out was the Keith Richards print that hangs above the bar and that was selected over 10 years ago. So the inspiration has been coming for a long long time. It was intended to be new space and feel, flowing, like sitting in the back of a convertible in the mid-seventies while listing to Tusk hovering into 2030. I love design, it is one of reasons why I got into restaurants, I love the feeling of a space and a restaurant has every form of design in it, from light, to color, art, ceramics, layout, smell, taste and on and on ...
In what ways has locale within the PNW and the culture and traditions of Tusk’s Middle Eastern cuisine influenced one another?
S: We are using Middle Eastern food as a jumping off point to highlight the incredible produce that is available here. It is some of the best product available in the entire world. I want to inject the soul of Middle Eastern food, the flavors, into what we do. I don't want it to be a version of something else that already exists. Tusk is a representation of a time and a place. I consider it to be more of a Portland restaurant than a Middle Eastern restaurant.
J: This is all Sam, all the time. He is simply killing it. It is really fun to watch and to eat it all! I just helped give Sam a space and gave the band a place to play.
Most people aim to constantly improve in their craft year after year to stay ahead of the curve. What are some ways in which you educate and challenge yourselves regularly? Any mentors?
S: I consider my two biggest mentors to be Joshua and Michael Solomonov. My food is a mash up of both of their styles, combined with my own inspirations.
J: I read, eat, and just constantly look for new and old ways to think and be. My influences are farmers, seasons, designers, musicians. I would say my biggest influence for the last few years has been watching Tyler Hays of BDDW and M. Crow create and run his company.
What’s next for Tusk?
S: Tusk Japan! Just kidding, I just really want to focus on not just making Tusk successful in the short-term, but to have Tusk be relevant five years, ten years, down the road.
J: Tusk is next for Tusk, we have a long exciting road to keep perfecting it.
What has been the best compliment you've ever received?
J: Sam just said I was an influence, that was big-big.
Favorite food movie or documentary?
J:Stand by Me.
One tool you cannot live without?
J: iPhone and that is fucking sad!
Nomenclature preferences: 1. Eggplant or Aubergine? 2. Zucchini or courgette? 3. Pop, soda, or lolly water?
J: I love Estela [in Portugal].
Special thanks to Ryan Dirks of Submarine Hospitality for facilitation, and a super special thank you to Sam and Joshua for wise words and an awesome story. We highly recommend following Tusk PDX on Instagram for an eyeful of gorgeous plating and behind-the-scenes peek into the life and times of a restauranteur.